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John Huston was not just one of the great American directors, he was the great translator of literary works from page to screen. After years of honing his storytelling skills as a Hollywood screenwriter, he made the leap to director with The Maltese Falcon (1941), not simply an iconic detective film and a defining film noir but an adaptation so precise that the previous screen versions have been all but forgotten. Through his career Huston has created definitive screen versions of a number of great novels: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951), Moby Dick (1956), The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Wise Blood (1979), to name the most prominent. It's only fitting that he ended his career with a masterpiece of adaptation.
Based on the James Joyce short story that concludes his collection The Dubliners, The Dead (1987) is one of Huston's most exquisite works, a perfect cinematic short story attuned to the rituals and unspoken bumps in the relationships of family and friends gathering in early twentieth century Dublin to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. It was also a family affair for Huston, who directed from a script by his son Tony (given sole screen credit despite contributions by John) and cast his accomplished daughter Anjelica (who he had just directed to an Oscar®-winning performance in Prizzi's Honor, 1985) in the lead. Huston had lived in Ireland for twenty five years and, though he had since sold his estate and moved to Mexico, had retained his Irish citizenship. The film was his tribute to the country he adopted late in life and to the author whose work inspired him as a young man. "Joyce was and remains the most influential writer in my life," he confessed in an interview during the making of the film.
Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann center the film as Gretta and Gabriel Conroy, a married couple whose cool relationship is unnoticed by the guests who arrive at the home of Gabriel's spinster Aunts Julia and Kate (Helena Carroll and Cathleen Delany, veterans of Dublin's famous Abbey Theater) to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on a snowy January evening in 1904. The film opens as the family members arrive, ushered into the warmth of their home by the doting aunts, who take their position on the second story landing like family royalty but fuss over every guest like mother hens. The arrivals include cousin Freddy (Donal Donnelly), who arrives tipsy and proceeds to drink himself to a slurring effusiveness (much to the consternation of his aged mother), boisterous family friend Mr. Browne (Dan O'Herlihy), who drinks himself into a red-faced belligerence, and a celebrated singer, Bartell D'Arcy (real-life Irish tenor Frank Patterson, making his film debut).
Huston carries the viewers into the gathering and the culture of the occasion as if we were members of the family, settling us into this yesteryear pace of life and the rhythm of the evening's agenda. We join them in the upstairs music room for drinks, dancing, recitations and music, including a song from the aging Aunt Kate, whose voice has become thin and fragile over the years yet is heartbreakingly expressive. The camera roams through the family home during this song to take stock of a life lived and a legacy she has passed on to her family and her students. It's a moment of tender restraint and delicacy that expresses a world of respect and affection for this woman. That delicacy continues as we ease down to dinner (and the attendant conversations of music, politics and family gossip) and finally to the farewells at the end of the evening. Beneath the warmth and inclusiveness and comic moments of the evening is a melancholy undercurrent: disappointment and regret and wistful remembrances reverberate through the songs and recitations of the gathering, and the uncomfortable glances between Gretta and Gabriel suggest that these notes touch a little close to the strains in their marriage. Through it all Gabriel remains a proud, stubborn cosmopolitan, an intellectual looking down at what he sees as the provincial Irish world they inhabit, while Gretta is pleasantly aloof, smiling with others but never able to talk to Gabriel. Not until the profound final scene: Gabriel's epiphany on the Feast of the Epiphany.
Huston had wanted to make a film of the story since the 1950s but it was producer Wieland Schulz-Keil who brought the story to Huston while they were in production on Under the Volcano (1984) and raised the financing on Huston's reputation. Huston gathered a crew of loyal collaborators stateside while casting director Nuala Moiselle brought together his Irish cast (Anjelica was the sole non-Irish actor in The Dead, but she had grown up on her father's Irish estate). He had hoped to shoot on location in Ireland but his failing health prevented him from traveling (a second unit was sent to get exteriors in Dublin, including shots of the actual home that Joyce describes in the story). Instead, he brought his Irish cast to Valencia, California, where the sets of the grand home were built. It surely occurred to Huston that this could be his last film as a director. He was suffering from emphysema and directed from a wheelchair and hooked up to an oxygen machine but tackled the project as he would any other, beginning with a two week rehearsal period before the six-week shoot began (the project could only get insured because director Karel Reisz agreed to stand by and take over in case Huston became incapacitated or too ill to continue). For all the fears of the insurers, Huston brought the film in on time and on budget and delivered a small masterpiece, a film of exquisite grace and understated power.
John Huston saw The Dead through to the final edit, overseeing the final shaping of the narrative and the careful, quiet sound design, but died soon after its completion. He passed away on August 28, 1987, days after celebrating his 85th birthday and just a few months before the film's Christmas 1987 release. The film received Academy Award nominations for its costumes and for Tony Huston's adaptation (but astoundingly none for John Huston's direction or Anjelica Huston's performance, both of which won Independent Spirit Awards). Its stature and reputation have only grown in the years since.
Producer: Wieland Schulz-Keil, Chris Sievernich
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Tony Huston (writer); James Joyce (story)
Cinematography: Fred Murphy
Music: Alex North
Film Editing: Roberto Silvi
Cast: Anjelica Huston (Gretta Conroy), Donal McCann (Gabriel Conroy), Dan O'Herlihy (Mr. Browne), Donal Donnelly (Freddy Malins), Helena Carroll (Aunt Kate), Cathleen Delany (Aunt Julia), Ingrid Craigie (Mary Jane), Rachael Dowling (Lily), Marie Kean (Mrs. Malins), Frank Patterson (Bartell D'Arcy).
by Sean Axmaker